Politics is about identity, not policy


Joe Biden’s victory is a signal that the ordinary Americans counting our votes, both left and right, shows we still have a participatory democracy. A democracy where average people participate in deciding who gets to decide how to use the strength and resources that are collectively ours as a nation. The election has shown how precariously we share the same ideas about how to use those resources through health policy, taxes, or foreign affairs. But the center of our national project holds. For now.   

What we know now is that there are two Americas separated by very different visions of both the present and the future. Trump’s America is angry and in a mood to keep tearing down the institutions it feels have turned against it. Biden’s country is aghast that there are people who don’t see the very different future it does.   

Biden’s America is the clear majority, and the numbers will bear that out in the end. But they likely won’t show a bigger popular will to be a part of a Democratic vision of the future than Clinton’s win in 2016. Part of that is because there are many uncast votes on the West Coast because the Electoral College makes casting them largely pointless in a system as unique, in a bad way, like ours. Part of why the divide between the Americas is so wide is that we don’t know exactly who we are as a country. The current system is like a warped mirror that only shows us vaguely whether we’re a center-left or center-right people. The Electoral System has to go or we’ll never clearly see who we are.  

Trump’s America is committed to its community, and they take possession of it seriously. The results will likely show no expansion of Red America. It’s almost certain to be the same group, disaffected whites mostly, with enough smatterings of color to allow a disingenuous picture to painted with careful stage-managing of who’s in front of the camera.   

That isn’t to say the two America’s are the best thought of as racial divides. Biden’s support is white, too. But White Men may be the best metric to use if there is one single difference between the two nations. Manliness in Trump’s America is mostly for a certain kind of disaffected male. Biden holds a broader sense of what it means to be a man. And therein is the truth that is most uncomfortable to admit. Trump’s map marks a community of fervency, of the last stand. It’s a parody of the High Noon myth uneducated males are likely to construct for themselves as a safe space where they can be the kind of men they fantasize about.   

The irony of the idea that Trump America is a safe-space is too delicious to ignore, of course. It’s also frightening. When people are scared enough to need such spaces, they’re likely to risk extremes to secure their existence. The insecurely attached young male has always been the bane of republics. Big Armies and long foreign campaigns historically kept their numbers down and their presence away from the homeland. But today I worry that it’s the army of such men and their retinue that will make the war in order to give them meaning.    

Whatever else this election tells us, it reinforces that Trump’s country is showing the fervency of the last stand. It’s a duel to hold the 21st century at bay. Trump’s future denies the future we know is coming. Climate change isn’t real in Red America because people want to deny the idea that the repair shops their sons inherit won’t smell like oil and gas and might require access to computer classes that don’t exist in their town.   

These are justified fears. And though Trump drowned out Biden’s vision for community colleges that would help allay some of this anxiety, Blue America kids itself if it thinks education is enough. This is about identities, and even if an electric car repair shop is possible in Racine, Wisc., it will take years or decades to make it not seem out of place, out of the norm — not who the people there thought they were.   

Maybe this realization of the long haul yet before the nation as it emerges beyond its 20th-century self has also turned into some fatalism that kept blue voters away. Maybe anger is the stronger emotion.     

Few people are willing to vote against the communities they identify with. We all need to belong somewhere, that somewhere is now one or the other of these diverging nations. But still, the center holds. For now.  

Matthew J. Schmidt is a professor of National Security and Political Science at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.  

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